"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."
Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"
Double-Naught SpiesThis month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.
Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos.
Spies in WWII required even more advanced methods. One method was by radio. It was difficult to use radios for secret communication during WWI because the "long" radio wavelengths in use at time required bulky radios and massive antennas. Technology advanced enough in the period between the wars so that the wavelengths could be smaller (and shorter as in "shortwave"). These new era radios required less power with smaller components.
Operatives in the field such as resistance fighters, troops, and spies, needed small radio communication devices that could easily be disguised or hidden. The transistor was not yet invented, so bulky vacuum tubes still dominated electronics. But clever engineers were able to squeeze a transceiver that could transmit 500 miles into an ordinary suitcase. Now a spy could surreptitiously reconnoiter the enemy while going from train to hotel and quickly transmit the intelligence.
A suitcase-sized transceiver might seem large by today's standards, but it was as big of a breakthrough as brick-sized cellphones were in 1990. Once transistors came along in the 1950's – oh by the way, that's when Ian Fleming was writing the first James Bond novels – dreams of a radio the size of a cigarette pack became reality.
One of the most famous suitcase spy radios was the SSTR-1, developed by the OSS (U.S. Office of Strategic Services). Seen here in an instructional film from WWII, and here in a detailed technical breakdown, the SSTR-1 could be concealed under bulky clothing if need be. The SSTR-1's weight averaged 20 pounds, so a steady walk was imperative.
What spies and governments transmitted was just as interesting as how. Morse code was common with the smaller radios because voice was harder to transmit clearly over long distances. Of course, every letter or word was in code, and the secret to successful espionage is a well-guarded cipher. The success or failure of code breaking factored into every major military decision. The story of code breaker Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine is well known, and is hailed as being the final nail in Hitler's coffin.
Another radio technique used for spies in WWI and II, and still in use today, is a numbers station. Usually found on the shortwave band, a voice will read lists of numbers or incomprehensible phrases. Sometimes short musical pieces, tones, and other sounds are played. Some are on regular schedules and frequencies, others are unpredictable, but all are shrouded in mystery.
All these small radios got me thinking about that Beverly Hillbillies episode where Jethro wants to be a "double-naught" spy. He asks Uncle Jed to hollow out the heel in his shoe for a radio, because that's where Double-Naught-Seven carries his. Uncle Jed asks why he doesn't just carry it in his pocket.
"Well I...I can't tell you that," Jethro replies.
"No sir, I just ain't sure."
Did You Know?
- Long waves are radio signals 300KHz and lower, below the AM radio band of 530KHz
- Long waves were first used in the early 1900's by ships. Today, they're still used to communicate to submarines because of the ease of penetrating water.
- Long waves can be broadcast farther distances than medium waves (AM broadcast). The longest recorded reception was in Brazil from a Romanian transmitter.
- More power is required to transmit long waves versus medium and short wave radio. The antennas are massive as well, reaching 50 feet or more.
- The wavelength of a 300KHz long wave is 100 meters, or 328 feet! The minimum length of an antenna for transmitting (1/4 the wavelength) is 82 feet.
- The wavelength of our local WVLK 590 AM radio station is 51 meters, or 167 feet.
- The wavelength of our local WKQQ 100.1 FM radio station is 3 meters, or about 10 feet.
- Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr, along with George Anthiel, invented a "Secret Communications System" for the war effort against the Nazis.
- Lamarr and Anthiel's "spread spectum" manipulated transmit and receive radio signals at irregular intervals. This allowed sensitive information to be transmitted via an unbreakable code.
- The spread spectrum was first utilized by US Navy ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- The spread spectrum is the backbone of modern digital wireless communications such as the cell phone.